Wilson Flagg.

A year among the trees; or, The woods and by-ways of New England online

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cept where it has spread over land that has once been
cleared and cultivated. In that case, we find mixed with
the forest trees WiUows, apple-trees, and lilacs, which
were planted there before the tract was restored to na-

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ture. I have seen trees of this species growing as stand-
ards of immense size, with their branches always joining
the trunk very near the ground. On this account little
rustic seats and arbors are more frequently erected in the
crotch of a Willow than in that of any other tree.

The most of our indigenous Willows are mere shrubs.
Though there are above thirty American species, but few
of them rise to the stature of trees. Some of them are
creeping plants and prostrate shrubs, some are neat and
elegant trees in miniature. Their branches are also of
many colors, some of a fine golden hue, spreading a sort
of illumination over the swamps where they abound ;
some are red; others with foliage so dark as to have
gained the name of Mourning Willow. Some, like our
common bog Willow, are called white, from their downy or
silken aments. One of the most beautiful of the small
species is the golden osier, or Basket Willow. The yellow
twigs of this shrub, coming up from the ground like grass
without subdivisions, but densely from one common root,
are very ornamental to low grounds. It would seem as
if Nature, who has given but little variety to the foliage
of this tree, had made up for its deficiency by caus-
ing the different species to display a charming variety in
their size. Thus, while the common yellow Willow equals
the oak in magnitude, there are many species which are
miniature shrubs, not larger than a heath plant. As one
of the beautiful gifts of nature, the Willow claims a large
share of our admiration. Though not a convenient orna-
ment of our enclosures, the absence of this tree from the
banks of quiet streams and glassy waterfalls, overhanging
rivers and shading the brink of fountains, would be most
painfully felt by every lover of nature.

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It has been observed by foresters that there is a ten-
dency in any soil which has long been occupied by a
certain kind of timber, to produce, after the trees have
been felled, a very diflferent kind, if it be left to its spon-
taneous action. The laws affecting such rotations have
been very well ascertained, and a careful investigation
of the subject would undoubtedly reveal many curious
facts not yet known. If the stumps of the trees, consist-
ing of oak, ash, maple, and some other deciduous kinds,
remain after the wood is felled, they wiU throw up suck-
ers, and the succeeding timber will be an inferior growth
of the original wood. But if the stumps and roots of the
trees should be entirely removed, it would be more diffi-
cult to determine what would be the chamcter of the
next spontaneous growth. It would probably be planted
by the kinds that prevail in the neighboring forests, and
it would depend on the character of the soil whether the
hard or soft wood trees would finally predominate.

There is an important chemical agency at work, that
originally determines the distribution of forests, and after-
wards their rotation. The hard- wood trees require more
potash and a deeper soil than the coniferous and soft-
wood trees. Hence they are found chiefly on alluvial
plains and the lower slopes of mountains, where the soil
is deep and abounds in all valuable ingredients for the
support of vegetation. Pines and firs, on the contrary,
though frequently discovered of an immense size on allu-
vial soils, are generally crowded out of such grounds by

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the superior vigor of the hard-wood trees ; and they can
only maintain their supremacy on barren and sandy
levels, and the thin soils of mountain declivities, too
meagre to support the growth of timber of superior kinds.
But a wood must stand a great many years, several cen-
turies perhaps, after its spontaneous restoration, before this
order of nature could be fully established. We must ob-
serve the spontaneous growth and distribution of herba-
ceous plants in different soils to ascertain these laws,
which are the same in a field as in a forest.

When any growth of hard wood has been felled and
the whole removed from the ground, the soil, having been
exhausted of its potash, cannot support a new and vigor-
ous growth of the same kind of timber. The succession
will consist of a meagre growth of the same species from
seeds already planted there; but the white birch and
poplar, especially the large American aspen, usually pre-
dominate in clearings in this part of the country. When
a pine wood is felled, it is succeeded by an inferior growth
of conifers, and a species of dwarf or scrub oak. Seldom,
indeed, after any kind of wood has been cut down and car-
ried away from the spot, can the exhausted soil support
another that is not inferior in quality or spiBcies. Though
an oak wood may be succeeded by pines, a pine wood will
not be succeeded by oaks or any other hard timber, un-
less the trees were burned and their ashes restored to the
soil. Hence we may account for the fact that poplars,
white birches, and wild-cherry-trees, occupy a larger pro-
portion of the ground that is now covered with wood
than they did a century ago, in all parts of the country.

I have already alluded to the well-known fact, that the
generic character of the timber, in the distribution of the
primitive forest, in any country, is determined in great
measure by the geological character of the soil. On
sandy plains in the primitive forest, the white birch, the

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poplar, the aspen, and the pitch pine were abundant,
as they are now on similar soils. The preference of the
red maple for wet and miry soils is well known ; while
hard maple, oak, beech, and hickory do not prosper ex-
cept in strong alluvial^ tracts. A heavy growth of hard
timber indicates a superior soil ; pine indicates an inferior
one, if it has been left to the spontaneous action of
nature. In the primitive fcTtest we were sure of finding
such relations of soil and species. They are not so
invariable since the operations of agriculture have inter-
rupted the true method of nature.

When a wood has been burned, the process of renewal,
when left to nature, is much more tardy than if it had
been felled, since it can now be restored only by a regular
series of vegetable species, which must precede it, accord-
ing to certain inevitable laws. The soil, however, being
improved and fertilized by the ashes of the burnt tim-
ber, is in a chemical condition to support a luxuriant for-
est as soon as in the course of nature it can be planted
there. Trees will not immediately come up from this
burnt ground as in a clearing ; and if they should appear,
they would mostly perish from the want of protection.
In the order of nature herbaceous plants are the first to
occupy the soil, and these are followed by a uniform suc-
cession of different species. There is an epilobium, or
willow herb, with elegant spikes of purple flowers, con-
spicuous in our meadows in August, which is one of the
earliest occupants of burnt ground, hence called fire weed
in Maine and N"ova Scotia. The downy appendage to its
seeds causes it to be planted there by the winds immedi-
ately after the burning. The trillium appears also in
great abundance upon the blackened surface of the
ground in all wet places. Plants like the ginseng, the
erythronium, and the like, whose bulbs or tubers lie
buried deep in the mould, escape destruction, and come up

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anew. These, aloiig with several compound plants with
downy seeds, and a few ferns and equisetums, are the
first occupants of burnt lands.

But the plants mentioned above have no tendency to
foster the growth of young trees. They are, however,
succeeded by the thistles and tliorny plants, which are
nature*s preparation of any tract, once entirely stripped
of vegetation, as a nursery for the seedlings. All the
phenomena of nature's rotation are but the necessary
giving place of rapid-growing and short-lived plants to
.others which are perennial and more capable of maintain-
ing their ground after being once planted. Thorns and
thistles soon appear on burnt lands, and protect the young
trees as they spring up, both from the winds and the
browsing of animals. Thus many an oak has been nursed
in a cradle of thorns and brambles, and many a lime-
tree growing in a bower of eglantine has been protected
by its thorns from the browsing of the goat.

We very early discover a variety of those woody plants
that bear an edible fruit, which is eaten by birds and scat-
tered by them over the land, including many species of
bramble. The fruit-bearing shrubs always precede the
fruit-bearing trees ; but the burnt land is first occupied
by those kinds that bear a stone-fruit. Hence great num-
bers of cherry-trees and wild-plum-trees are found there, as
tlie natural successors of the wild gooseberry and bramble-
bushes. These are soon mixed with poplars, limes, and
other trees with volatile seeds. But oaks, hickories, and
the nut-bearing trees nmst wait to be planted by squir-
rels and field-mice and some species of birds. The nut-
bearers, therefore, will be the last to appear in a burnt
region, for the little quadrupeds tfiat feed upon their
fruit will not frequent this spot until it is well covered
with shrubbery and other vegetation. If the soil be
adapted to the growth of heavy timber, the superior

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kinds, like the oak, the beech, and the hard maple, will
gradually starve out the inferior species, and in tlie
course of time predominate over the whole surface.

When I consider all these relations between plants and
animals, I feel assured, if the latter were destroyed that
plant their seeds, many species would perish and disap-
pear from the face of the earth. Nature has provided,
in all cases, against the destruction of plants, by endow-
ing the anin^als that consume their fruits with certain
habits that tend to perpetuate and preserve them. In
this way they make amends for the vast quantities they
consume. After the squirrels and jays have hoarded nuts
for future use, they do not find all their stores ; and they
sow by these accidents more seeds than could have been
planted by other accidental means, if no living creature
fed upon them. Animals are not more dependent on
the fruit of these trees for their subsistence, than the
trees are upon them for the continuance of their species.
And it is pleasant to note that, while plants depend
on insects for the fertilization of their flowers, they are
equally indebted to a higher order of animals for plant-
ing their seeds. The wasteful habits of animals are an
important means for promoting this end. The fruit of
the oak, the hickory, and the chestnut will soon decay
if it lies on the surface of the ground, exposed to alter-
nate dryness and moisture, and lose its power of germina-
tion. Only those nuts which are buried under the surface
are in a condition to germinate. Many a hickory has
grown from a nut deposited in the burrow of a squirrel ;
and it is not an extravagant supposition that whole for-
ests, of oaks and hickories may have been planted in this

These facts are too much neglected in our studies of
nature. A knowledge of them, and a consideration of
their bearings in the economy of nature, might have saved

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many a once fertile country from being converted into a
barren waste, and may serve yet to restore such regions
to their former happy condition. But these little facts
are not of sufficient magnitude to excite our admiration,
and they involve a certain process of reasoning that is not
agreeable to common minds, or even to the more culti-
vated, which have been confined chiefly to technology.
The few facts to which I have alluded in this essay are
such as lie at the vestibule of a vast tenaple that has
not yet been entered. I am not ready to say that no sin-
gle species of the animal creation may not be destroyed
without derangement of the method of nature ; for thou-
sands have, in the course of time, become extinct by the
spontaneous action of natural agents. But there is reason
to believe that, if any species should be destroyed by arti-
ficial means, certain evils of grievous magnitude might
follow their destruction.

The frugivorous birds are the victims of constant per-
secution from the proprietors of fruit gardensr Their per-
secutors do not consider that their feeding habits have
preserved the trees and shrubs that bear fruit from utter
annihilation. They are the agents of nature for dis-
tributing vegetables of all kinds that bear a pulpy fruit
in places entirely inaccessible to their seeds by any other
means. Notwithstanding the strong digestive organs of
birds, which are capable of dissolving some of the hardest
substances, the stony seeds of almost all kinds of pulpy
fruit pass through them undigested. By this providence
of nature the whole earth is planted with fruit-bearing
trees, shrubs, and herbaceous plants, while without it these
would ultimately become extinct. This may seem an un-
warrantable assertion. It is admitted that birds alone could
distribute the seeds of this kind of plants upon the tops
of mountains and certain inaccessible declivities, which,
without their agency, must be entirely destitute of this

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description of ^VBgetation. But these inaccessible places
are no more dependent on the hiids than the pkoBs and
the valleys. The difference in the two cases is simply
that the one is apparent, like a simple proposition in
geometry, and the other requires a course of philosophical
reasoning to be perfectly understood.

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In the early payt of my life, one of my favorite resorts
during my rambles was a green lane bordered by a
rude stone wall, leading through a vista of overarching
trees, and redolent always with the peculiar odors of the
season. At the termination of this rustic by-road, — a
fit approach to the dwelling of the wood-nymphs, — there
was a gentle rising ground, forming a small tract of table-
land, on which a venerable Weeping Willow stood, — a
solitary tree overlooking a growth of humble shrubs,
once the tenants of an ancient garden. The sight of this
tree always affected me with sadness mingled with a
sensation of grandeur. This old solitary standard, with a
few rose-bushes and lilacs beneath its umbrage, was all
that remained on the premises of an old mansion-house
which had long ago disappeared from its enclosure. Thus
the Weeping Willow became associated in my memory,
not with the graveyard or the pleasure-ground, but with
these domestic ruins, the sites of old homesteads whose
grounds had partially reverted to their primitive state of

Of all the drooping trees the Weeping Willow is the
most remarkable, from the perfect pendulous character of
its spray. It is also consecrated to the Muse by the part
which has been assigned to it in many a scene of ro-
mance, and by its connection- with pathetic incidents
recorded in Holy Writ. It is invested with a moral in-
terest by its symbolical representation of sorrow, in the
drooping of its terminal spray, by its fanciful use as a

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garland for disappointed lovers, and by the employment
of it in burial-grounds and in funereal paintings. We
remember it in sacred history, associating it with the
rivers of Babylon and with the tears of the children of
Israel, who sat down under the shade of this tree and
hung their harps upon its branches. It is distinguished
by the graceful beauty of its outlines, its light 'green
delicate foliage, its sorrowing attitude, and its flowing

Hence the Weeping Willow never fails to please the
sight even of the most insensible observer. Whether we
see it waving its long branches over some pileasure-
ground, overshadowing the gravel- walk and the flower gar-
den, or watching over a tomb in the graveyard, where the
ivarm hues of its foliage yield cheerfulness to the scenes
3f mourning, or trailing its floating branches, like the
presses of a Naiad, over some silvery lake or stream, it is
m all cas^ a beautiful object, always poetical, always pic-
turesque, and serves by its alliance with what is hal-
lowed in romance to bind us more closely to nature.

It is not easy to imagine anything of this character
more beautiful than the spray of the Weeping Willow.
Indeed, there is no other tree that is comparable with it
in this respect. The American elrii displays a more
graceful bend of all the branches that form its hemispher-
ical head ; and there are several weeping birches which
are very picturesque when standing by a natural foun-
tain on some green hillside. The river maple is also a
theme of constant admiration, from the graceful flow of
its long branches that droop perpendicularly when laden
with foliage, but partly resume their erect position in
winter, when denuded. But the style of all these trees
differs entirely from that of the Weeping Willow, which
in its peculiar form of beauty is unrivalled in the whole
vegetable kingdom.


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It is probable that the drooping trees acquired the
name of " weeping," by assuming the attitude of a person
in tears, who bends over and seems to droop. This is the
general attitude of affliction in allegorical representa-
tions. But this habit is far from giving them a melan-
choly expression, which is more generally the effect of
dark sombre foliage. Hence the yew seems to be a more
appropriate tree for burial-grounds, if it be desirable to
select one of a sombre appearance. The bending forms
of vegetation are universally attractive, by emblemizing
humility and other qualities that excite our sympathy.
All the drooping plants, herbs, trees, and shrubs are poeti-
cal, if not picturesque. Thus lilies, with less positive
beauty, are more interesting than tulips.

A peculiar type of the drooping tree is seen in the
fir, whose lower branches bend downwards, almost without
a curve, from their junction with the stem of the tree.
This drooping is caused by the weight of the snow that
rests upon the firs during the winter in their native
northern regions. There is a variety of the beech, and
another of the ash, which has received the appellation
of weeping, from an entire inversion of the branches, both
large and small. Such trees seem to me only a hideous
monstrosity, and I- never behold them without some dis-
agreeable feelings, as when I look upon a deformed

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All the seasons display some peculiar beauty that
comes from the tints as well as the forms of vegeta-
tion. Even the different months have their distinguish-
ing shades of light and color. Nature, after the repose
of winter, very slowly unfolds her beauties, and is not
lavish in the early months of any description of orna-
ment. Day by day she discloses the verdure of the plain,
the swelling buds with their lively and various coloi*s,
and the pale hues of the early flowers. She brings along
her offerings one by one, leading from harmony to har-
mony, as early twilight ushers in the ruddy tijits of mom.
We perceive both on the earth and in the skies the forms
and tints that signalize the revival of Nature, and every
rosy-bosomed cloud gives promise of approaching glad-
ness- and beauty.

By the frequent changes that mark the aspect of the
year we are preserved at all times in a condition to re-
ceive pleasure from the outward forms of Nature. Her
tints are as various as the forms of her productions ; and
though spring and autumn, when the hues of vegetation
are more widely spread and yield more character to the
landscape, are the most remarkable for their general
beauty, individual objects in summer are brighter and
more beautiful than any that can be found at other times.
In the early part of the year. Nature tips her productions
with softer hues, that gradually ripen into darker shades
of the same color, or into pure verdure. By pleasant
and slow degrees she mingles with the greenness of the

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plain the hues of the early flowers, and spreads a charm-
ing variety of warm and mellow tints upon the surface
of the wood.

In treating of vernal tints, I shall reffer chiefly to ef-
fects produced, without the agency of flowers, by that
general coloring of the leaves and spray which may
be considered the counterpart of the splendor of autumn.
In the opening of the year many inconspicuous plants
are brought suddenly into notice by their lively contrast
with the dark and faded complexion of the ground. The
mosses, lichens, and liverworts perform, therefore, an im-
portant part in the limning of the vernal landscape. On
the bald hiUs the surfaces of rocks that project above the
soil, and are covered with these plants, are brighter than
the turf that surrounds them, with its seared grasses
and herbage. They display circles of painted lichens,
varying from an olive-gray to red and yellow, and tufts
of green mosses which surpass the fairest artificial lawn
in the perfection of their verdure. Many of the flower-
less plants are evergreen, especially the ferns and lyco-
podiums, and nearly all are earlier than the higher
forms of vegetation in ripening their peculiar hues. '

The first . remarkable vernal tinting of the forest is
manifest in the* spray of difierent trees. As soon as the
sap begins to flow, every little twig becomes brightened
on the surface, as if it had been glossed by art. The
swelling of the bark occasioned by the flow of sap gives
the whole mass a livelier hue. This appearance is very
evident in the peach-tree, in willows and poplars, in the
snowy mespilus, and in all trees with a long and slender
spray. Hence the ashen green of the poplar, the golden
green of the willow, and the dark crimson of the peach-
tree,* the wild rose, and the red osier, are perceptibly
heightened by the first warm days of spring. Nor is this
illumination confined to the species I have named ; for

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even the dull sprays of the apple-tree, the cherry, the
birch, and the lime, are dimly flushed with the hue of
reviving life. As many of the forest trees display their
principal beauty of form while in their denuded state,
this seasonal polish invites our attention, particularly to
those with long and graceful branches.

The swelling buds, which are for the most part very
highly colored, whether they enclose a leaf or a flower,
add greatly to this luminous appearance of the trees.
These masses of innumerable buds, though mere colored
dots, produce in the aggregate a great amount of color.
This is apparent in all trees as soon as they are affected
by the warmth of the season. But as vegetation comes
forward, the flower-buds grow brighter and brighter, tiU
they are fully expanded, some in the form of fringes,
.as in most of our forest trees, others, as in our orchard
trees, in clusters of perfect flowers. This drapery of
fringe, seldom highly colored, but containing a great
viariety of pale shades, that hangs from the oak, the birch,
the willow, the alder, and the poplar, is sufficient to
characterize the whole forest, and forms one of the most
remarkable phenomena of vernal wood- scenery.

It is generally supposed that the beauties of tinted
foliage are peculiar to autumn. I do not recollect any
landscape painting in which the tints of spring are rep-
resented. All the paintings of colored leaves are
sketches of autumnal scenes, or of the warm glow of
sunlight. Yet there is hardly a tree or a shrub that does
not display in its opening leaves a pale shade of the same
tints that distinguish the species or the individual tree
at the time of the fall of the leaf. The birch and the
poplar imitate in their half-developed leaves the yellow
tints of their autumnal dress, forming a yellow shade of
green. The tender leaves of the maple and of the dif-
ferent oaks are all greenish purple of diSerent shades.

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On the other hand, the foliage of trees that do not change

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Online LibraryWilson FlaggA year among the trees; or, The woods and by-ways of New England → online text (page 3 of 21)